These Schools Are Our Holocaust: Bearing Witness to the Mohawk Residential School

On Saturday, June 4, a group of community members from Queen Street Yoga visited the Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford and were given a tour of the Mohawk Residential School. It was our intention to bear witness to the stories of the place, acknowledge the history of the land, and learn more about the brutal history of Canada’s treatment of Indigenous/First Nations/Native/Original Peoples. This post is a reflection about the experience written by QSY Co-Director, Emma Dines.

“This place feels like a raw wound. Nothing has even begun to heal here.”

We sat on the grass outside the Mohawk Residential school on a beautifully warm Saturday in June. Amanda is one of the meditation teachers at Queen Street Yoga, and in our closing circle she compared her visit to this school to her visit to Dachau. A few years ago on a trip to Germany, she and her husband went to witness the gas chambers, barracks, and slave yards of the infamous concentration camp. She said that she felt the same horror and rawness walking through the hallways of the residential school here. Amanda grew up near Galt and was ten years old when the Mohawk Residential School was finally closed in 1970. “I never knew this place was here,” she said. “I didn’t know it existed.”

This school is our Dachau. This school is our concentration camp.

Unlike Dachau, this school was not a death camp, but it was designed for the methodical extermination of the culture and spirit of people from the Six Nations, and neighbouring First Nations communities. It was essentially a children’s prison that took children as young as four away from their parents and then forced them back out into the world at the age of 16. “Beat the Indian out of the child” was the motto that the headmasters, school teachers, and house “parents” ascribed to for over 100 years. It was these schools and policies that caused a cultural genocide for the Indigenous peoples in what is now called Canada. It is estimated that over 150,000 Indigenous children were put through the residential school system in Canada. It is this cultural genocide that the Canadian government acknowledged only 8 years ago in 2008.

These schools are our Holocaust.

There is nothing museum-like or produced about the Mohawk Residential school. Most of the rooms are empty of furniture and smell of mildew and mould, as the building is falling into severe disrepair. Artifacts sit in cardboard boxes at the edges of a room. There are no plaques or signs or glass partitions to explain the abuse or appalling conditions. Instead, a young Mohawk woman named Hayley acted as our guide. She took us room to room and explained the stories she had heard from survivors of the school. In a plain, matter-of-fact language she explained that the children were called by numbers instead of names, that they were beaten if they spoke their own languages, that they were starved and placed in solitary confinement as punishment, and that they were forced to fight one another as entertainment for the teachers. Many children were sexually abused by the teachers and staff. They do not know how many children died at the school. They do not know how many children passed through the school, as records were not well kept.

Listening to Hayley describe the abuse and suffering of her people was difficult to hear, but oddly softened by the fact that she was 8 months pregnant. Her pregnant belly felt like a symbol of life and renewal alongside the harsh stories that were arising out of the rooms of the school. She gestured to a leather bracelet that she wore, as a traditional protection for her baby. She described some of the rituals that her community did yearly to honour the children who died here, who were never given a proper burial according to their customs and beliefs. She spoke of the healing circles that survivors have organized as a way to unlearn the abuse that was enacted upon them.

An exhibit inside the Woodland Cultural Centre (a building near the main residential school building which houses First Nations art installations, a gathering hall, and museum exhibits) described the life of the Haudenosaunee people (People of the Long House) before settlers came to the area and the years of relative peace and cooperation that occurred at the time of first contact. When the exhibit gets to describing the emergence of the residential schools and the policies of taking children away from their parents and communities, there was a sign that read “the aim of the residential schools was to kill the culture and spirit of the Haudenosaunee peoples. In this respect, the residential schools failed. Our cultures survived and continue to be practiced and passed on.” Reading that reminded me of the necessity to see Native peoples as survivors of these policies, rather than victims. To paint the survivors of the schools as disempowered victims is to perpetuate the idea of their helplessness, and to assume that the way to respond is to “help” and “rescue”. Reading that reminded me that it is my responsibility to stand in solidarity with this community as it responds and acts, rather than lead a rescue mission from outside.

Our aim, as a group coming from Queen Street Yoga, was to “bear witness” to the site and stories and impacts of the residential school and let our witnessing be the starting place for responsive action. Yoga can be a practice of unity and connection, and it is our intention to create connection to the many and varied experiences of living beings in the world. We can begin with our own bodies, learning to listen to and be with the various sensations that come with being alive. And we can extend that practice to listening to the variety of stories and experiences that are around us, close to us in community, or more removed from us. We can extend that practice to stories that are difficult to hear, stories that call our own complicity into question, stories that challenge us to look and look again at our own actions or inactions in the world.

What was the response of the European population when the truth of the concentration camps came out after the Second World War?

If these schools are our Holocaust, how do we bear witness to that and how do we respond?

If you’re interested to read more about the campaign to save and preserve the historical building of the Mohawk Residential School here are some links we recommend:

We will be planning another QSY community Bearing Witness Day to Mohawk Residential School in spring of 2017.

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